Excerpt - Mysterious Mr. Darcy
No one could speak of anything else. Netherfield Park had been let at last to a young gentleman with a fortune of four to five thousand a year. The exact amount was uncertain, but it changed with every new telling. What was certain was that there had not been such a commotion in Meryton since, almost three years ago, Mr. Collins had proposed to his cousin Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who had turned him down. Without the slightest scruple, Mr. Collins had immediately rushed out to propose to Elizabeth Bennet’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas, who had accepted his offer with equal haste.
Since that day, very little had happened to disturb the tranquility of the sleepy neighborhood. Two other young ladies had married, one of them Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s sister Jane, the other one Miss Mary King, who was in possession of a small fortune. Neither wedding had captured the town’s collective attention, since they had both been quiet affairs. Jane Bennet had married in London, and although Mrs. Bennet had tried everyone’s patience by exclaiming over every detail of the ceremony, both before and after it had taken place, no one else in Meryton had had the pleasure of attending. Meanwhile, Mary King’s wedding had been so small, it had been over before it had started, and Miss King had moved away at once.
Now, with the arrival of an eligible young gentleman, the town was humming with expectation. The Bennet family in particular was roused by the prospect. His arrival galvanized Mrs. Bennet’s determination to see her girls well settled. Giddy with the certainty that one of her daughters would succeed in capturing Mr. Bingley’s affections, Mrs. Bennet felt justified to break years of tradition by throwing open the door to the library and bursting into the room while her husband was reading.
“My dear Mr. Bennet," she said, with a sense of utmost urgency, "What are you doing here? You must call on Mr. Bingley at once!”
Mr. Bennet, who did not like to be interrupted in his sanctuary, looked up from his book and pointedly removed his spectacles.
“To what do I owe this unexpected intrusion, Mrs. Bennet? Why must I visit Mr. Bingley?”
“How can you be so tiresome, Mr. Bennet? You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of my daughters."
"Is that his design in settling here?"
“Nonsense! Of course it is not, since he hasn’t met them yet, but you must know it would be a remarkable thing if we could have one of our daughters married.”
“One of them is already married, Mrs. Bennet.”
Elizabeth Bennet, who was privy to this exchange, could not help smiling. Mr. Bennet delighted in vexing her mama, and mama never knew when she was being teased.
The mention of Jane, however, brought on the usual longing to see her. Dear Jane. If only she was here now! Elizabeth missed her sister terribly, especially on occasions like this, because she was the only person she could be entirely open with. She could have told her how bored she was of Lydia and Kitty droning on about the Assembly and how they hoped to capture Mr. Bingley. She was tired of hearing the new arrival spoken of everywhere.
Jane, with her good nature and tendency never to find fault in anyone, had always managed to talk Elizabeth out of her more scornful moods. At the moment, Elizabeth was inclined to think Mr. Bingley was a fictional character, nothing more than a figment of everyone’s imagination. From what she had heard, he was impossibly handsome, elegant and amiable. In other words, he had been infused with every virtue under the sun. The real Mr. Bingley, she decided, was probably an unpleasant curmudgeon who had never received so much attention in his life.
Nevertheless, despite herself, Elizabeth was intrigued. She would be a fool to pretend otherwise. There must be some substance to the rumors. They couldn’t be completely made up. She couldn’t wait to find out for herself what this prodigy was really like.
If nothing else, watching the young ladies fawn all over him would provide enough amusement to last them several months.
Mr. Bennet did call on Mr. Bingley, and he surprised Mrs. Bennet and his daughters by announcing suddenly one evening that, having met Mr. Bingley, he intended to give his blessing to whichever of his daughters Mr. Bingley chose to marry.
“I just hope he chooses Lizzy because, if they settle in Netherfield, she won’t have to go away. I am reluctant to part with her. She is my only source of sensible conversation.”
Mrs. Bennet was torn between triumph at knowing they could now secure an introduction to Mr. Bingley and vexation at Mr. Bennet’s obvious bias towards Elizabeth.
“What nonsense you speak, Mr. Bennet! He might like any of our girls, except Mary, perhaps, because she is too plain. But if Lizzy wants to capture any man’s attention, she has to smile more and speak less.”
“Some would say I smile more than I ought,” said Elizabeth, with a laugh.
“You don’t smile. You laugh, which is entirely different.”
Elizabeth braced herself, expecting Mrs. Bennet to continue for some time in this vein, but her mother had already lost interest in their conversation. The vexation had given way to delight.
“So we are now acquainted with Mr. Bingley. I can’t wait to tell sister Philips. She was warning me just yesterday that if we did not make haste, Mrs. Long would know him before we did, and she would contrive to grab Mr. Bingley for her daughters. However, I was not worried. I always knew you would do the right thing, Mr. Bennet!”
Beside herself with joy, she began to inundate her husband with questions, but he escaped with his usual speed into the library and shut the door behind him.
They learned nothing more about Mr. Bingley, despite numerous attempts to draw Mr. Bennet out. Not even Elizabeth succeeded in wrangling a description of the gentleman from her papa. Mr. Bennet was enjoying being mysterious and was even more evasive than usual.
“But Papa, you can’t claim not to know what he looks like. You are the only person in this family who has set eyes on him.”
“Now, now, Lizzy, you can’t have me spoiling the anticipation, can you? Besides, a gentleman in possession of a fortune is always fine looking, don’t you think, especially if he is in search of a wife?”
“Papa, I hardly think a brief description will spoil my sense of anticipation. There will be plenty of things to look forward to in him, including finding out about his character.”
“Well, if you must have it, Lizzy, I think he’s a fine figure of a man. Will that satisfy you?”
“No, it will not, Papa, and you know it very well. I need a description from you.”
“Need, Lizzy, or want?” Mr. Bennet looked at her over his round spectacles. “If you insist, I will tell you that he is of medium height, with hair that is light colored. His features are unremarkable other than that.”
“What color are his eyes?”
“Come now, you would hardly expect me to have noticed his eyes. Men do not generally peer into other’s gentlemen’s eyes.”
In the end, she had to be satisfied by her father’s reassurance that Mr. Bingley was ‘a handsome enough young fellow.’ At least he wasn’t wrinkled and old, which was hopeful. Beyond that, she couldn’t judge whether her father was concealing something or whether Mr. Bingley was genuinely as cordial as they said.
Her curiosity aroused, she found herself looking forward to meeting the new arrival as eagerly as everyone else.
As soon as it was apparent that Mr. Bingley would be attending the Meryton Assembly, Mrs. Bennet dug deep into the estate’s almost empty coffers and ordered new ribbons, gloves, and trimmings for all the girls. It was too late to have new evening dresses made, and Mrs. Bennet bemoaned the fact hourly. However, Elizabeth was able to change the sleeves of her dress to fit the latest fashion, and, by stitching on some pearls and new lace, felt satisfied that the gown would be good enough for Mr. Bingley.
Only one matter cast a shadow on Mrs. Bennet’s exhilaration. Mr. Bennet invited Mr. Bingley for dinner. After planning half a dozen menus in an effort to impress him – and not being able to decide which one – Mr. Bingley spared her the trouble of choosing. He sent round a note with his regrets, saying he needed to go up to Town that day.
“What business can it be that takes him to Town so soon after his arrival?”
Mrs. Bennet did not take kindly to the refusal and complained bitterly that he could have at least waited to go up to London until after the dinner invitation. However, she was soon ready to forgive him when Mrs. Philips had it on good authority that Mr. Bingley was bringing with him a London party of at least eight gentlemen.
As the night of the Assembly approached, the sense of expectancy grew stronger. Even Elizabeth -- who was convinced she was going to have her hopes dashed when she finally came face to face with Mr. Bingley – was infected by the fever. A party of eight was promising. It was infinitely better than the knowledge that all the single young ladies in Meryton would be competing for a single eligible gentleman.
Who knows, she thought, maybe I will finally encounter someone I could fall in love with. At four and twenty, Elizabeth was by no means as optimistic as she had been at twenty-one that she would encounter the man she was destined to marry. There was still time, of course, but leaving Longbourn to set up her own establishment was growing more and more appealing, particularly now that she no longer had either Jane’s or her friend Charlotte’s company. She did have a friend, Ruth Pratt, but Miss Pratt lived a little out of the way, so Elizabeth did not see her as often as she might have liked.
Mrs. Bennet’s voice broke into her thoughts. “Lizzy! I asked you a question!”
Elizabeth looked up from working on her ball gown and found her mother and three sisters looking at her expectantly.
“Your mind is always somewhere else, Lizzy, though I cannot imagine what you can be thinking of. You are too much like your father. That is what comes of reading so many books.”
“I have the right to my own thoughts, mama,” said Elizabeth, with a smile.
“Not when I am talking to you. I was saying that you must make a particular effort to attract Mr. Bingley’s attention. You missed your chance to marry when you refused Mr. Collins. When I think of Charlotte Lucas being mistress of Longbourn—.” She broke off to bring her handkerchief to her eyes. “Your father did you no favor by encouraging you to say no to him. Look at you now. Another year and you will have to wear a spinster’s cap. I hope you don’t plan to be particular about Mr. Bingley.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Mama, we do not even know if he will be interested in me.”
“He’s more likely to show an interest in me,” said Lydia, stoutly. “I’m taller and more handsome. And besides, mama, Lizzy’s already an old maid. Aunt Philips said so the other day.”
“Take no notice of sister Philips. I am certain she only says this to vex me.”
Elizabeth was at first taken aback by Lydia’s remark, but she had too much of a lively, playful disposition to dwell on it. She delighted in anything ridiculous, and her mother’s protestations at aunt Philips’ remarks soon aroused her mirth.
“I do not think she could have said it to vex you, mama,” she said, laughing, “since you were not there.”
Mrs. Bennet, confronted with this logic, merely said darkly that, if Elizabeth had married Mr. Collins instead of letting Charlotte do so, she would not have been called an old maid at all.
Since Elizabeth had been hearing this refrain for some time now, it had no impact on her.
“If I had married Mr. Collins, I would have looked like an old maid. My hair would have turned white by now.”
Lydia and Kitty giggled, while Mary looked as if she might produce a quotation on the subject of frivolity.
“Nonsense! How can you talk so, when he will be throwing us into the street the moment he inherits Longbourn?”
Elizabeth hid a smile. Her mother was so predictable. She could never miss an opportunity to bring up the issue of inheritance.
“Then you must endeavor to keep Papa happy, mama, to ensure he lives a long, healthy life,” said Elizabeth. “Who knows, maybe, with your help, he will even outlive Mr. Collins. I do believe Papa has a more robust constitution than our cousin.”
Mrs. Bennet, who had never been swayed by such an argument before, suddenly seemed struck by the idea. “Do you know, it is quite likely, Lizzy, because Charlotte has no idea of the right sort of food to give her husband. Besides, it is very possible the dinners at Lady Catherine’s house are too rich, and will cause him to develop gout before he is thirty.”
The idea pleased Mrs. Bennet so much that she hurried downstairs to advise Cook about what dishes to prepare for Mr. Bennet, leaving Elizabeth relieved to know she had escaped at least one lecture on her folly in refusing to marry Mr. Collins.
Fitzwilliam Darcy stared out of the window, trying to make out the outline of Netherfield. So far, he had received a positive impression of Bingley’s new estate. The land itself appeared to be prospering, and the few tenant’s houses he had seen so far were in good repair. It was too early to tell, of course, especially as Darcy had not even seen Netherfield Place itself, but Bingley had apparently chosen well.
More importantly for him, it appeared that Bingley had been right about the location of Netherfield. The area was sparsely populated, and it was unlikely that Darcy would run into any of his acquaintances here.
Darcy could still scarcely believe that he had taken this step. During the long journey from Cornwall to Hertfordshire, Darcy had stopped the carriage twice. Each time, he had given the order to turn back. There were many reasons to stay in Cornwall, and very few reasons to leave. His mind argued that removing himself from Cornwall was unwise and could only lead to problems.
His heart, however, insisted otherwise. All he had to do was pick up the letter from his sister Georgiana he had placed next to him on the carriage seat – a constant companion on the road – and his determination to follow his original plan to join Bingley would strengthen. The letter would remind him why he was doing this, and he would order the coachman to resume the journey to Netherfield. The coachman, Darcy was convinced, must think him completely capricious. Even now, he wasn’t sure he had made the right choice, but he was here now, and it was too late to change his mind. He only hoped this decision would satisfy his sister.
He and Georgiana had exchanged letters regularly over the last three years. His sister was a good correspondent, and her letters were always full of delightful details that painted a clear picture of life in Pemberley – Mrs. Reynolds hiring a new maid, Cook making the old dishes that he liked, the new rose bush that Georgiana had planted next to his mother’s special breed. The letters made him homesick, but they were a lifeline. They enabled him to maintain an illusion that he was still connected to everyone there.
However, this letter was completely different. It had a different tone. It had shaken him to the very core. His belief that at least his sister was happy had been destroyed. That, too, apparently, was an illusion. How long had this been going on?
I hope all is well with you, and that you have recovered fully from your poor wounded knee. I wish Cousin Richard would allow me to visit you, or that he at least would travel to Cornwall to see you. I know the circumstances do not permit it, but it is so painful being here in the comfort of Pemberley, our own home, knowing you are living in an abandoned old castle in the middle of nowhere.
Dear William, there is something I have wanted to say for some time now, and I cannot keep it to myself any longer. I did not want to bring this up in my letters before, but now that your wound is much improved, and you are here in England, I cannot keep it to myself any longer.
The fact is, I am wretched. I am consumed by guilt. I wake up every morning, knowing that your life has been blighted because of me. You need not deny it. It is the simple truth. It is because of me that you have been forced to endure exile and isolation. I had hoped when you returned to England, things would be different, that you would be able to go out in society again. Now I realize that nothing has changed. I cannot bear it any more. I cannot continue to be the reason you cannot live your life in full. I must do something. I have not determined what it is, but I have resolved to find a solution.
Your devoted sister, Georgiana
When Darcy first read the letter, his blood had run cold. Georgiana’s words had an ominous ring to them. What did she have in mind? What would her guilt drive her to?
He realized he had never really considered the impact of his exile on Georgiana herself. When he had left England, he had made certain his cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, took responsibility for Georgiana as well as for Pemberley. It had seemed like the logical solution at the time, since Fitzwilliam was already Georgiana’s guardian. Never in his wildest dreams would Darcy have thought that Georgiana would take the blame for everything that had happened.
As soon as he had read the letter, his immediate impulse had been to order his carriage and rush to Pemberley as fast as possible to stop Georgiana from doing something foolish. Fortunately, Bingley had been there to talk him out of it, and he now appreciated his friend’s presence of mind. It would not help Georgiana at all for him to be arrested and imprisoned. He could not possibly return to Pemberley without everyone knowing of his presence.
Several hours and a restless night later, one thing became abundantly clear. He could not remain in Cornwall if Georgiana believed him to be miserable here. He could write to her and try to convince her, of course, but he did not think she would believe any of his protestations.
To make her feel better, he had only one course before him. If he could reassure her that he was living a normal life again, he would be able to relieve at least some of her anxiety.
He had no choice but to return to society again, it seemed. Bingley had been right after all.